Shakuntala Devi (1929-2013) was best known as “the human computer” for her ability to perform lengthy calculations in her head, swiftly. One example of this, described in her New York Times obituary, took place in 1977, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where she extracted the 23rd root of a 201-digit number in 50 seconds. It took a Univac computer 62 seconds to do the same.
Now, her life story has inspired the Hindi-language film “Shakuntala Devi,” streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Starring the veteran Bollywood actress Vidya Balan as Devi, the film is directed by Anu Menon and tells the story of Devi’s life from the perspective of her daughter, Anupama Banerji. Played by Sanya Malhotra, Banerji was involved in the making of the film.
Here are five facts about Devi you may not know.
1. Devi holds the Guinness World Record for “Fastest Human Computation.”
In 1980, she correctly multiplied two 13-digit numbers in just 28 seconds at Imperial College London. The feat, also included in her obituary, earned her a place in the 1982 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records. It was even more remarkable because it included the time it took Devi to recite the 26-digit solution. (The numbers, selected at random by a computer, were 7,686,369,774,870 and 2,465,099,745,779. The answer was 18,947,668,177,995,426,462,773,730.)
In one famous interview on the BBC in 1950 (recreated in the biopic), her answer to a mathematical question was deemed incorrect, before the host later acknowledged that in fact, the computer’s answer was wrong and Devi was right.
2. She was an ally of L.G.B.T.Q. people.
In 1960, Devi married Paritosh Banerji. They divorced years later, and the 2001 documentary “For Straights Only” claimed the marriage fell apart because Banerji was gay. Devi said in the documentary that she set out to learn more about the challenges faced by L.G.B.T.Q. individuals to promote wider acceptance. In 1977, she wrote “The World of Homosexuals,” which featured her research findings, including interviews with same-sex couples in India and abroad.
“It is not the individual whose sexual relations depart from the social custom who is immoral — but those are immoral who would penalize him for being different,” she wrote in the book.
3. She applied her mathematical strength to a pursuit of astrology.
Perhaps because of her fascination with numbers, Devi tried her hand at astrology, which is highly revered in Indian culture. “Personal Astrologer of Presidents, Prime Ministers, Royalty, Movie Stars and Top Business Tycoons of the world is now available for Astrological Consultations” a newspaper ad claimed at the time. She similarly toured the world, according to a Times article, seeing up to 60 clients a day. They would give her a date of birth, time of birth and birthplace, and she would answer three questions about their lives. She also wrote a book called “Astrology for You.”
4. She wrote a novel.
When Devi stopped touring the world doing shows featuring her arithmetic prowess, she wrote several books on math and her techniques, including “Puzzles to Puzzle You,” “Super Memory: It Can Be Yours” and “Mathability: Awaken the Math Genius in Your Child.” But decades prior, in 1976, Devi also wrote a crime thriller called “Perfect Murder.” Written entirely in the first-person, the story explores what happens when a lawyer, motivated by greed, decides to kill his wife to escape the marriage.
5. She once tried to forge a path into politics.
In 1980, Devi ran for Parliament, the Lok Sabha, as an independent candidate from two different localities — Mumbai and Medak (in the present-day state of Telangana). In Medak, her main opponent was the former prime minister, Indira Gandhi, whom Devi had openly criticized. Her fame, however, didn’t translate into votes, and she finished ninth, while Gandhi went on to win and became prime minister once again.